“The rules are made by the people who turn up” – that was one of many slogans for the RockEnrol campaign in 2014. Why? Because we had learned that when it came to voting for the rulemakers, 3 out of 5 young Kiwis weren’t turning up.[i]

Young people make up 20% of the voting population, while people over 65 make up 15%. The major difference in voting patterns? Only 5.2% of people over 65 did not vote in 2011, compared with 42% of those under 25.


Age and Turnout 1996-2011 (% of roll)

Source: Professor Jack Vowles, Victoria University

There is a tonne of research in this area as to why. Young people don’t identify with the left-right political spectrum, they care about issues but not party politics. Young people don’t know who to vote for, or they don’t think their vote will count.

In fact, when surveyed only 20% of non-voters answered “I am not interested” as their reason for not voting. Meaning that 4 out of 5 non-voters have some other reason, and those reasons are much more complex than most people think.[ii]

Digging into the data.

The first thing you’ll notice if you look into the qualitative data is that there is no such thing as the “youth vote”.

Of the approximately 580,000 18 – 29 year olds[iii] in New Zealand, the ones least likely to vote are of Māori, Pasifika or Asian descent. Recent migrants are less likely to vote than long-term migrants, and those with a low level of income or education are also less likely to turnout at election time. Same goes for young people who live in rural communities.

International research tells us that young people rarely cite a preference for doing something else on election day as the reason for not voting, nor are they protesting by not voting. Young would-be voters feel they have less security in the welfare system and labour market compared to older voters, and that they and their interests have been excluded from formal politics – both party and institutional.[iv]

In short, if you are part of a group that is marginalised economically and socially, you’re much more likely to be marginalised politically too.

The “cycle of mutual neglect” or “rational actor theory”.

What we also know from research is that young people don’t vote because parties don’t appeal and parties don’t appeal because young people don’t vote. There is a mutual distrust between political parties and young people by and large. In a very recent trust survey put out by Victoria University, MPs are the second least trusted group in society with just 8% of New Zealanders saying they trust them lots or completely, alongside media and just ahead of bloggers who are the least trusted group in New Zealand at just 5%.[v]

Outdated outreach mechanisms and slow-moving political machines

Despite under-30’s large numbers and demonstrable ability to turnout to vote in record numbers for candidates who appeal to them and their issues directly (think: President Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016)[vi] New Zealand’s political parties do not seem to think that the young are a demographic whose vote is worth chasing.

Political parties (and the electoral process that surrounds it) have been slow to take into account young people’s forms of political activism, interests and means of communication. The internet is the most obvious example of this.

In 2014, it still wasn’t possible to enrol online as a first-time voter. You needed to have filled in a paper enrollment form first, which you can pick up at your local post office. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know too many 18 year olds frequenting the post office these days.

Take also the prospect of online voting as an example; 75% of people aged 25 -34 are willing to cast a vote online. Compare that with the 38% of people aged 65 – 74 and the generational disparity becomes obvious.[vii]

Willingness to vote online in general elections in New Zealand

Personally I am not an advocate for online voting as the silver bullet. My tech-minded friends who are much smarter than I inform me that technically we’re not at a level where we could do it safely yet (think Anonymous hackers). There is also a huge risk of increased coercion with online voting. I think more work needs to be done in this space.

But one thing the political elite could take away from this demographic trend is that if you want to appeal to young voters then your online game better be damn good.

RockEnrol to the rescue.

Looking back now, 2014 was a bizarre election. Eminem, Edward Snowden and a fair amount of Dirty Politics all made an appearance. But it was also the election that saw unprecedented attempts to get out the youth vote. RockEnrol was one of those attempts.


RockEnrol volunteers in Myers Park, Auckland (Photo credit: Chris Pemberton)

RockEnrol is a non-partisan, youth-led and volunteer-powered campaign combining popular culture with grassroots community organising to build political power for young people by encouraging them to use their vote. Our goal was to increase the number of young people casting a vote in 2014 and we succeeded. The number of 18 – 29 year olds who voted from 2011 to 2014 jumped from 42% to 49%.[viii] Sure that’s still less than half of our young people voting but after decades of decline a spike in the alternate direction can only be a good thing.

Here’s how we did it in 7 (not that) easy steps:

  1. We looked like the people we were trying to target.
    Of those old enough to stand as MPs, people under 30 are massively under-represented in Parliament. Almost 9 out of 10 MPs are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, even though those age groups make up only half of the eligible voting population.[ix] RockEnrol was run by young people, for young people. Our volunteer median age was 21.5.
  1. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, we adjusted it for context.
    RockEnrol was modelled off the US organisation ‘Rock The Vote’ who have turned out more than 5 million young voters since they launched 25 years ago. We thought why try to do something totally new ourselves when our much better resourced brothers and sisters in the US have already tried (and tested) out hundreds of tactics to turn out young voters. Tactics we stole from Rock The Vote? Voter registration (aka enrolment) and pledge to vote, volunteer phone banking, Facebook advertising, in-person canvassing and community events. For instance, what we know from the Rock The Vote’s experience is that by combining a pledge to vote (either by phone or in person) with a follow-up get-out-the-vote phone call on Election Day, we can increase turnout by 11 percentage points,[x] so that’s exactly what we did.
  1. We combined sizzle with steak.
    The formula for RockEnrol was this: Make a pledge to vote (for whoever you want) in the 2014 Election. A pledge consists of giving us your name, email and phone number – either in person or online – and ticking a box that says “I promise to vote on September 20th” and as a reward for your pledge you then get a free ticket to a RockEnrol party happening somewhere around the country. We had 60 free gigs – organised by RockEnrol volunteers – all around the country. Homebrew, Tiki Taane, Tali, Third3ye, Esther Stephens & The Means, Optimus Gryme and heaps of other artists volunteered their time for free (or very cheap) to pull off this mammoth effort.At the party you see a bunch of other young people who are going to vote (providing social proof) and you start to think, “hmm maybe voting isn’t lame”.  And while it’s fresh in your mind, we have a booth set up at the event with a keen young volunteer who is there to make sure you’re enrolled and you have the information you need. Then in the lead up to Election Day, one of our volunteers sends you an email and gives you a call to make sure you remember your pledge to vote. They ask which voting booth you’re going to and how you’re going to get there, because (as we’ve learned from Rock The Vote) when people talk through their plan they’re much more likely to follow through. RockEnrol was essentially parties with purpose.
  1. We collaborated.
    RockEnrol was by no means the only contributing force toward the spike in the youth vote. You had advanced voting which made the act of voting much more accessible to voters. You had the Internet Party who – despite a low number of votes – had thrown an explicit conversation about targeting young voters into the mix.We were also part of a coalition of groups and individuals trying to get out the youth vote called the Virgin Voter Collective, and according to independent Horizon Research conducted after the 2014 election, approximately 70,00 18-34 year olds were influenced to vote by the entirety of our coalition’s activities. Not bad for a grassroots effort.
  1. We met young people where they were… literally.
    We prioritised social media as a channel of communication with our target audience. We enrolled people in nightclubs, University dorms, and campus cafes.
  1. We offered a different narrative.
    We put the onus of low youth voter turnout on the political system, and not on young people. All too often we hear the narrative that young people are too apathetic, too lazy, too self-indulgent to vote and here we were a group of young people demonstrating the exact of opposite of the stereotypes held by some. We bought more young people’s views to the table, and offered a different perspective than the usual political commentators.
  1. We took young people seriously.
    We asked young people what issues they care about. Our volunteers had thousands of civic conversations with young people. We treated young people as a constituency worth caring about, something I still think political parties in New Zealand are by and large failing to do.

RockEnrol will be back in 2017 and it is my hope and ambition we’ll continue to see the number of young people voting rise. I’m confident it will.

[i] Down, Down, Down: Turnout in New Zealand from 1946 to the 2011 Election, Professor Jack Vowles, Victoria University

[ii] Non-voters in 2008 and 2011 general election, Statistics New Zealand

[iii] Population by age group in New Zealand, Figure.NZ

[iv] Slideshare from Dr Jennifer Curtin, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Auckland University

[v] Who do we trust? March survey 2016, Victoria University

[vi] Bernie, Barack and young voters, Vox

[vii] Willingness to vote online in general elections, Figure.NZ

[viii] New Zealand general election: Varieties of communication 2014, Professor Jack Vowles of Victoria University

[ix] The difference between you and an MP, Ours infographic

[x] Winning Young Voters, Rock The Vote Handbook


Laura O’Connell Rapira is Cofounder of RockEnrol and Director of Campaigns at ActionStation.

RockEnrol is a youth-led campaigning organisation that combines grassroots community organising, digital tools and popular culture to build political power for young people.

ActionStation is an independent, member-led not-for-profit organisation representing over 100,000 New Zealanders holding power to account, standing for human rights, a healthy environment, transparent democracy and economic fairness.

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